Fintan O’Toole: Criticism is not unpatriotic – awkward questions save lives

Mistakes are inevitable in this crisis. What matters is learning from them

The National Public Health Emergency Team: neither elected representatives nor the media have access to the meetings of by far the most influential body in the management of the crisis. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

The National Public Health Emergency Team: neither elected representatives nor the media have access to the meetings of by far the most influential body in the management of the crisis. Photograph: Colin Keegan, Collins Dublin

In July 1915, patriotic fervour was at fever pitch in Britain. Criticism of the conduct of the Great War was close to treason. But Bernard Shaw insisted that “if the English people stop the fiercest criticism of their rulers on Monday, the soldiers will be in brown paper boots on Tuesday; munitions will run short on Wednesday; and before Sunday ten thousand men will lose their lives unnecessarily”. In a national emergency, closing down one’s critical faculties isn’t patriotic. It’s the best way to guarantee that mistakes multiply and that poor decisions are not reversed.

This is hard to accept if you are trying to manage a pandemic under almost intolerable pressure. When you have your finger in the dyke, it is only natural to give another finger to the onlooker who tells you that some water is leaking through. But it is precisely because of the pressure that scrutiny is more necessary than ever. We are in the hands of human beings who are trying to deal as well as they can with a crisis unprecedented in their lifetimes caused by a virus whose full effects are still unknown. Honest mistakes in this arena are not shameful. They are inevitable.

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